SINGAPORE: The ongoing Marawi crisis in southern Philippines indicates that extremist terrorism is now endemic in the region, and "it may take many years" before this security problem is rooted out, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said in Parliament on Tuesday (Aug 1).
Dr Ng, responding to MP Christopher de Souza's question on how the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is adding anti-terror operations to their priority, said his ministry does not have any specific intelligence on an impending plot targeting Singapore. But the number of ISIS-related attacks in surrounding Southeast Asian countries and other region has increased three-fold in the last four years since 2013.
He noted that in Marawi, foreign fighters from countries like Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Chechnya were reported to be fighting there and more are expected to join them. Stashes of weapons, ammunition and large amounts of cash have also been reportedly discovered during raids on terrorist camps there.
"If these terrorist cells entrench deeper in Mindanao or any part of ASEAN, they will launch attacks against our people in Singapore and other cities in the region," Dr Ng said.
He then highlighted three ways his ministry and the SAF have been making changes to deal with this threat to the country. The first is to counter the threat at its source, with the SAF being part of the coalition against jihadi terrorism, he said.
The SAF was in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2013 against Al-Qaeda, its longest overseas deployment to date, with close to 500 personnel deployed, he said, adding that since 2015, it has deployed units as part of the coalition efforts against ISIS.
In fact, a SAF medical team is in Iraq now as an ongoing part of this effort, he revealed.
Secondly, MINDEF needs to deal with "proximate threats" in the region. Dr Ng pointed out that he offered ways SAF could help the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), such as offering humanitarian supplies for evacuees, use of its urban training facilities and a detachment of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to enhance their intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.
These have been accepted in principle by Philippine Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana, while MINDEF has been informed that President Rodrigo Duterte has also done so.
Details of the implementation are now being worked out, Dr Ng said.
STRENGTHENING DEFENCES AT HOME
There is also a need to strengthen defences at home, not only to respond to terrorist attacks but to prevent radicalisation of Singaporeans and deal with the social consequences in the aftermath of attacks, the minister said.
He cited the Island Defence Training Institute (IDTI), which was opened on Monday, as an example. The institute will prepare active and National Service (NS) units to undertake homeland defence and security operations, and equip soldiers with the necessary competencies to be deployed alongside their counterparts from the Ministry of Home Affairs, he said.
Soldiers will go through video simulation training to hone their thinking processes and application of rules of engagement, for scenarios such as coastal patrols and security checkpoints, he added.
The SAF is also purchasing more new equipment that will provide its forces "better mobility, more accurate situational assessments and precise neutralising capabilities" in urban settings where terrorists strike, Dr Ng said.
The minister also pointed to how the SAF will enhance sea and air defences. For instance, the navy will lead Exercise Highcrest in October this year with other government agencies.
He added that the defence technology community has set up a dedicated counter-terrorism office in the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) in October 2016, and joint operations between the SAF and Home Team are now enabled by a common command-and-control information system which provides situational awareness and interoperability.
Engineers from DSTA and DSO National Laboratories are using data analytics technologies to pick up specific threats and provide early warning, Dr Ng said.
Mr de Souza asked in a follow-up question if SAF and the Home Team will have more exercises together, and Dr Ng said there is a "clear recognition" that they do need to exercise more often, and they have, pointing to last year's joint exercise as an example.